King Clovis Becomes a Christian
Clovis was the first king of France. In his youth he was a heathen and worshipped the god Wodin; but later in life he became a Christian and made France a Christian country.
His father was chief or king of a small tribe of Franks, fierce German warriors who were constantly engaged in war with the invading Romans. Clovis was only fifteen years of age when his father died and he became chief of his tribe.
There was a Roman governor, Syagrius, still left in France, who looked with contempt upon the young Clovis, whom he thought a boy, and so he announced himself as Prince of Soissons. When Clovis heard of this he determined that no Roman should be prince in his neighborhood. Accordingly he went to battle with Syagrius and defeated him. Syagrius fled and took refuge in Spain with Alaric the Visigoth.
Clovis sent a messenger to Alaric with these words:
"Return to me at once the Roman fugitive or I shall march my armies on you. You must choose between me and him."
Alaric at once decided that Clovis was the better ally, so he sent Syagrius back. As soon as Clovis had Syagrius in his power he put him to death, according to the barbarous fashion of those days.
Clovis was now twenty years of age and made up his mind that if he could subdue a Roman force he might as well subdue the whole country and become the king of all France. Accordingly he marched through the country conquering as he went, plundering everything that came in his way, particularly churches. France was still a heathen country, but there were many Christians in the land and their churches were the places where they deposited much of their wealth, such as crosses of gold and silver, decorated with precious stones, rich altar cloths and rare vases.
In a church at Rheims there happened to be one lovely vase. Along with other treasures this vase fell into the hands of Clovis and his soldiers. The bishop of the church sent messengers to Clovis with these words:
"I beg you to spare the vase, which we consider particularly holy. Take all else you find, but that I would have for my own."
Now the spoils of battle or the riches of a plundered town belong to the conquerors, and according to the custom of those days everything was put into a large pile and was divided by lot. When the booty from the church of Rheims was collected at Soissons, Clovis addressed his soldiers as follows:
"Take what you like for your own and you shall have it without protest from me, but I wish this vase as my share."
All the soldiers shouted their consent and began to divide the booty among them. One man there was, however, who stood with evil countenance, because he did not like his king and was always opposing him. This man stood forth and said, "No. Let the king have his just and lawful share. To whomever the vase falls by lot, let it be his."
To this the king objected, whereupon the soldier seized his heavy battle-axe and struck the vase, breaking it in two parts.
King Clovis said nothing. He accepted the insult quietly and took up the broken vase and gave it to the bishop's messenger, saying that he was sorry that it could not be returned to him just as it was taken from the church.
But Clovis did not forget the insulting words and deed of the soldier, and later on at the muster of the army he found fault with the man's armor.
"Your arms are worse cleaned than any other soldier's. Neither your lance nor your sword nor your battle-axe is fit for war." Saying this he seized the warrior's battle-axe and threw it on the ground.
The astonished soldier stooped over to pick up his battle-axe which was lying in front of the king. The king swung his own battle-axe and striking the man upon the head, killed him at a blow, exclaiming, "Thus thou didst to the vase at Soissons!"
Soon Clovis made himself master of nearly all of France. He then wished to marry and so searched out a royal family. He had heard much of the beauty of the young Princess Clotilde, and decided to make her his queen. She was the daughter of a former king of Burgundy and was as gentle as she was beautiful. In addition to that, she was a Christian.
Clovis sent a friend of his to see her and offer his hand in marriage. The friend disguised himself as a wandering beggar and with his staff and wallet made his way to the court of Clotilde's father. There, as a homeless wanderer, he asked for food and shelter.
Clotilde, being generous and pious according to the custom of those days, washed the feet of the weary traveler. When she was bending over him he whispered that he had great news for her. "My master and king, Clovis, desires that you shall become his queen and told me to show you this ring that I bring with me in token of his good faith."
Clotilde was astonished and pleased. She took the ring and told the messenger that it would be well for Clovis to send for her at once, for her father had other suitors in mind and that she would be married shortly to some other if not to King Clovis.
When the messenger returned to Clovis and delivered the message of Clotilde, he told the king that she was the most beautiful creature that he had ever seen and that he must hasten to secure her or he would be too late. Clovis at once sent a formal demand for the hand of the princess, threatening war if his suit was refused. Her father, who did not want war, decided to let the princess go, so she traveled on a litter all the way to Soissons with a guard of men attending her.
Clotilde's father changed his mind soon after his daughter had left, just as she feared he would. But Clotilde thinking that she might be pursued, begged the officers in charge to let her mount a horse and travel at greater speed. This was done and when the pursuers overtook the litter they found it empty. The princess by that time had reached Soissons and was married to Clovis.
Of course they lived happily ever afterwards, as they should, but there was one thing in the mind of the beautiful queen which gave her a great deal of distress and that was that her husband was a heathen and worshipped heathen gods, while she was a Christian. She longed for his conversion, but for many years longed in vain.
Clovis was kind to her and let her worship as she chose, but insisted that he should have the same privilege.
When their first son was born it was baptized in a Christian church. Shortly afterwards it was taken ill and died. Clovis, who looked upon the child as his heir, reproached the queen, saying, "Had he been baptized to my gods he would have lived. It is your God that has taken him. My god would have left him here."
His next son was baptized in the same way, and he, like his brother, became ill, but did not die. Clovis was then in doubt whether it was his god or Clotilde's God which had saved their second child. Still he would not become a Christian, but clung to his worship of Wodin.
Finally at Cologne, in a great battle between the Germans and the French, the great leader was hard pressed. The fate of the battle was going against the king and everywhere the French were losing ground. Clovis, in great despair, did not know what to do. He thought of his wife's religion and cried out on the battle-field, "Oh, Christ, whom Clotilde, my beloved queen, worships as the Son of God, I call upon Thee at this time! All the other gods have forsaken me and there seems to be no power to help me. If I should have victory over these foes I will believe in Thee and I shall be baptized in Thy name."
Turning to the battle once more victory settled upon his arms. The German chief was killed, all of his men threw down their arms, kneeling upon the ground, praying to Clovis to spare their lives. It was a great victory and Clovis was now the undisputed king of France.
He did not fail to keep the promise made upon the field of battle. He went to Rheims, where a good bishop explained to him the Christian faith and offered to baptize him. As the rough warrior marched up the aisle of the church and saw the glittering lights and heard the singing of the choir, he turned to the bishop and asked, "Is this the kingdom of heaven that you spoke of?"
"No, replied the bishop, "but this is the road which will lead you there."
On Christmas Day in the year 496 three thousand of the warlike savages of King Clovis were baptized. Those who preferred to worship their old gods were allowed to do so, but were told that they must join another tribe. Thenceforth Clovis was a Christian king.
For fifteen years Clovis continued his career of victory. He conquered all of his enemies and established himself in Paris, which he made his capital. There he died and his good queen, Clotide, buried him in a church she herself had built.
Thus the prayers of a good woman not only made a Christian of her husband, but introduced Christianity into the country over which they both ruled.